Uyghurs in Canada

  • Cultural genocide: An estimated 3 million Uyghurs are currently in Chinese concentration camps according to new investigative reports.
  • Horror stories of kidnapping, torture, rape, separation from their families, being forced to break food laws, destruction of their mosques and more by Chinese authorities made headlines in Western media. 
  • The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is even persecuting them in foreign countries. 
  • Numerous democratic states have expressed alarm, but Chinese authorities insist they are simply fighting “terrorism.”

FOREF interview with  Dr. Susan J. Palmer*, McGill University, Canada

Note:  Dr. Susan J. Palmer is a leading expert on religious movements, and a member of FOREF’s Scientific Committee.  She explains her current research on Uyghurs in Canada in the following interview. 

What are the main questions you and your team addressed in this project?

Our research explores the reasons and processes whereby many Uyghurs left China and settled in Canada, with a focus on the challenges related to transmitting the Uyghur identity to their children in both countries.

While over 12 million Uyghurs live in the northwestern region Xinjiang, since the election of president Xi Jinping in 2013 there has been an accelerating religious and cultural repression of Islam and traditional Uyghur practices that have made it difficult for Uyghurs to transmit the distinctive traits of their religious and cultural identity to the next generation. On the basis of our interviews with over 25 Uyghurs who have arrived in Canada, it is evident there is a strong concern to safeguard and transmit their collective identity, as a response to what some of them refer to as the “cultural genocide” in China.

However, the challenges of achieving this goal in the Canadian context are daunting. In Canada, the Uyghurs are less than 2000, including first and second-generation immigrants, and they are spread out across the country. One challenge has been financial; many had to start their studies of professional activities over after they immigrated, although a few have recently begun to enjoy a more stable lifestyle. Another is familial. Since 2017, many Uyghurs living in Canada have lost contact with their relatives in China. Phone calls through the Chinese app WeChat were not answered, or their relatives begged to stop calling, since it prompted police visits and arrests. There are obstacles in obtaining tourist visas to invite family members to visit them in Canada. After 2017, many cancelled their trips to China, fearing it would place their relatives in danger of being arrested and interned in the so-called re-education centres, where many already have friends or relatives detained. One might argue that these events appear have triggered a collective trauma that has become central to the Uyghur identity in Canada, as might be seen by the strong response to our research.

How did you go about this research?

In February 2020, our team, including research assistants Marie-Eve Melanson and Shane Dussault and myself as principle investigator, visited the Uyghur School in Châteauguay, near Montreal, which is aimed at teaching children the Uyghur language, history, and culture. We conducted our first interviews with some of the parents we met at the school. From there, word spread that researchers from McGill University were doing research on the Uyghur community in Canada, and we started receiving emails from Uyghurs we had already interviewed suggesting that we contact their friends or relatives across Canada. Others contacted us directly after they received the information about our study from a WhatsApp group for Canadian Uyghurs. Currently, we have interviewed over 25 Uyghurs. Despite the fact that many have serious concerns that their participation in our research could affect the security of their relatives living in China (thus their wish to remain anonymous and our efforts to protect their identity), there is a resolute willingness to speak up and denounce what is currently happening to Uyghurs in China.

Since many Uyghurs go through or settle in Turkey after they leave China, we have recently started interviewing Uyghurs established in Istanbul, where political activism appears to be strong and well-organized. Turkey is a natural destination for Uyghurs who wish to leave China, as a majority Muslim country with a culture and a language similar to Uyghur. Moreover, Turkey offers Uyghurs a permanent residence permit, which allows them to legally reside in Turkey without a valid passport from China but also without being granted the same rights and privileges as Turkish citizens. Some of our Canadian participants have expressed a fear about Turkey’s friendly relationship with China in the last decades, which has led them to settle in Canada instead of Turkey.

What are typical reasons your interocutors immigrated to Canada?

Our participants were mostly professionals in China, in particular, successful traders and businessmen, engineers and university professors. Some came of student visas, but most arrived as skilled immigrants in the last two decades (i.e., at a time where the repression of the Uyghur identity was less obvious than it is today). While the immigration stories collected in our interviews are all unique, we can discern at least three patterns leading Uyghurs to leave their native country.

The first reason is discrimination. This prevails in the workplace, where Uyghurs have reduced chances of getting a good job or a promotion despite being qualified. Obtaining certain privileges that are readily available to the Han majority (e.g. a passport or a travel visa) can also be difficult for Uyghurs, who must pay off a number of people and have connections to obtain what they need. When Uyghurs face discrimination, it is also impossible for them to complain without risking further trouble. One of our participants told us that he quit his job as a university professor after he was unexpectedly requested to teach all his courses in Chinese language instead of Uyghur language, although almost all of his students were Uyghurs. Quitting was, according to him, the best way not to comply. Many of our participants said they left China so their children would not have to face discrimination and find better opportunities in a democratic country.

The second reason Uyghurs cited for leaving China was incessant harassment from the authorities. Many rationales for harassment are given by the CCP: making too much money, having traveled abroad, having been in touch with foreigners (especially if from a Muslim-majority country), having too many children, being interested in religion, or for opposing state policies. Police harassment can also occur after a Uyghur’s relative was suspected of one of those things. One participant recounts that since he and his wife had five children (which was two children more than it was permitted for them at the time), they frequently received visits from police officers they had to bribe in order to be left alone. Since his wife could not take the contraception the authorities provided medical reasons, she had to report to the police every month for a pregnancy test.  She was forced to have an abortion seven times.

The third reason for leaving China is fear in the justice system. Uyghurs fear that if they get trapped in the Chinese legal system—which can happen for a number of reasons— that they are going to be sent to jail or the rehabilitation camps. Some participants have seen their relatives, friends or acquaintances unjustly charged and tried for crimes they  did not commit, or for actions that would not be considered “crimes” in the Western world (e.g. having participated in a student protest demonstration). Some have heard stories about Uyghurs being kidnapped in neighboring countries and brought back to China only to be jailed. Those who fear the justice system are often people who have ties with intellectuals, activists or religious figures and who know that they are being watched by the authorities, or who have been placed on the “black list” (sometimes because of politically active relative abroad).

How has the situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang changed in recent years?

Since 2017, many Uyghurs living in Canada lost contact with their relatives in China. Either their phone calls were not answered, or they were unexpectedly requested to stop calling. Those who are “lucky enough”—as they say—to still be in contact with their relatives can talk to them through the Chinese app WeChat, which they know is monitored. For this reason, they keep their conversations to mundane topics.

Most Uyghurs interviewed immigrated before 2017, and only witnessed the increasing policing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang from abroad. Since it is highly risky for Uyghurs still living in China to share their experience in the camps with their relatives living abroad (or even with their relatives in China), the information that Uyghurs in the diaspora are able to get on the situation in Xinjiang mostly comes from other Uyghurs in the diaspora who shared their experiences with to various media outlets, have written on social networks, or gave speeches at events and protests.

In general, many participants explained having fully realized the scope of the problem with Uyghurs in China after they immigrated, since they could not access the information in China due to censure. When they came to Canada, many thus became more engaged in activist activities, especially once they felt settled in their new life.

Were any of your contacts forced into detention facilities in Xinjiang?

None of the Uyghurs we interviewed have been in the rehabilitation camps (which they almost systematically call “concentration camps”). However, many have friends and relatives who have been detained or are currently detained in the camps. Those who got out of the camps do not necessarily want to speak about their experience with their relatives. One participant mentioned that her sister got out of the camp in very poor health and has practically stop speaking ever since. Detainees are sometimes able to call their relatives or send them letters, however, they are strictly monitored. One participant whose uncle had been detained for a few years explained that whenever his uncle got the permission to call his son, he would only speak in Chinese, although he did not speak any Chinese before he entered the camp. The family also received a letter from him written in Chinese.

Based on your interviews, how important is Islam to Uyghur Identity?

While there has been many discussions in the media about the Chinese Communist Party’ repression of religious practices, not being able to practice Islam in China or having to adapt the Islamic religious practices to fit the requirements of the Chinese Communist Party appears to be a secondary concern for Uyghurs. In our interviews, although Uyghurs have much to say against China, the lack of freedom of religion in Xinjiang almost never comes up unless we ask about it, even though Islam is an important part of many Canadian Uyghurs’ life. This is probably due to the fact that, from a global perspective, Islam is thriving; unlike the Uyghur people, whose history and culture is progressively being erased from China, threatened by the CCP’s policy of assimilation by the Han majority. Being Muslim seems to be a part of the identity of Uyghurs that they have in common with other peoples, rather than something that belongs specifically to them. An illustration of this is that there do not seem to be any real attempts to resist the Arabisation of traditional Uyghur religious practices among Uyghurs, either in China or in the diaspora. There are strong efforts to recover and disseminate Uyghur history and literature, on the other hand. Thus, Uyghurs do not carry the burden of safeguarding Islam, while they do carry the burden of safeguarding their ethnic identity. In short, it is principally the “ethnic” part of the ethno-religious identity of Muslim Uyghurs that seems to be the focus of Uyghurs’ concerns today, probably because it is this part of their identity that is being threatened of assimilation from a global standpoint.

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How do Uyghurs seek to safeguard the Uyghur identity?

There seems to be three main ways by which the Uyghurs aim to safeguard the Uyghur identity in the current context. The first one is transmitting the Uyghur language, which is essential for many Uyghur families living in Canada. This is done by speaking the Uyghur language at home and, when possible, teaching the Arabic script.

Another way to safeguard the Uyghur identity is through marriage. Our interviewees almost all mentioned that they hoped their children would marry within the Uyghur community, often stating the need to “counter the genocide going on in China” as a reason. Some of our participants who were first-generation immigrants have themselves married within the Uyghur diaspora after having immigrated. Many met their partner on Facebook or through a WhatsApp group, and then traveled to the location where the person was living to get married. They then sponsored them to immigrate to Canada.

Finally, efforts are made in the diaspora to publish and disseminate Uyghur books, especially books that have been banned in China. One of the main Uyghur-owned publishing houses is located in Istanbul (we interviewed the owner). This publishing house seeks to obtain and publish works by Uyghur authors (academics, writers, poets, theologians, etc.) in order to safeguard the writings of influential Uyghurs and prevent the Uyghur history from being erased. Other publishing houses also produce children books in the Uyghur language throughout the diaspora.

How do Uyghurs in Canada support their community?

Most Uyghurs interviewed support their community, but some do it more publicly than others. On the one hand, some think that it is crucial to denounce loud and clear the situation that Uyghurs are facing in China despite the risks involved for their relatives in China because this is the only way to get justice to the Uyghur community. In this case, they will often be engaged in activism (e.g. organizing demonstrations, sending letters to politicians) or in an established association working for the defense of Uyghur interests. On the other hand, some prefer to play it safe and not “give the Chinese authorities one further reason” to arrest their relatives in China. In this case, they may prefer to make donations to Uyghurs in need (e.g. a Uyghur student whose parents are detained and needs to pay for their tuition) or to organizations working to defend the interest of Uyghurs in Canada or internationally. They can also be involved in the Uyghur schools, either supporting the school financially or with their time, teaching about the Uyghur language, music, dances, foods, history, traditions, etc.

How has oppression of Uyghurs in China affected their lives as immigrants? 

Many Uyghurs claim to suffer from PTSD after having gone through traumatic events in China. Moreover, many are anxious about the well-being of their relatives, which impacts their ability to function well in their daily life. One participant living in Turkey explained how he had trouble pursuing his studies after he learned of his mother’s detention. He states that he does not want to be informed about what is going on in the camps in Xinjiang since it would make him more worried. Many Uyghurs we interviewed in Canada have said the situation of Uyghurs in China is constantly at the back of their mind. While they have opportunities to share their worries together, in particular during meshreps, a traditional monthly gathering, most do not receive any kind of government or professional assistance for the traumatic memories and practical difficulties experienced since they arrived in Canada.

*Susan J. Palmer is a sociologist in the field of new religious studies, whose research has been supported by six grants from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). She authored (or co-edited) numerous books and articles. Palmer is an Affiliate Professor in the Religions and Cultures Department of Concordia University where she teaches courses in religion. She also teaches at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, where she is currently directing a four-year SSHRC-funded research project, Children in sectarian religions and state control.


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